Atypical nouns

Some English nouns are tricky to use because they are uncountable instead of countable. You can read more about the grammar of countable and uncountable nouns if you follow these links:

However, there are also countable nouns that do not behave or look the way we expect a regular countable noun to do.

Foreigners writing in English need to pay extra attention to those cases where their language has a regular countable noun, while the corresponding English noun is atypical or irregular in some way.

Of course the opposite situation is also possible, that is, that a regular English noun corresponds to an irregular one in your language, but such situations are not normally likely to cause problems for Swedes or other non-native speakers of English writing in English. 

We will consider the following cases: (a) Inherently singular nouns that look like plurals, (b) nouns that look like plurals, even in the singular, (c) inherently plural nouns, (d) nouns in -ics, (e) zero plurals, and (f) foreign plurals.

It is not our intention to provide lists of all (or most) nouns that belong to these categories. What we want to do, though, is draw your attention to the fact that these categories exist, so that you will be aware of these categories when writing and consult a good dictionary when you are not certain whether or not the noun that you want to use belongs to one of these categories.

To get to section on one of the different cases more quickly, please use the links below.

Inherently singular nouns that look like plurals

If there is an -s at the end of a noun, we normally think of it as plural. However, it is not always that this final -s is a true plural ending, in the sense that we get plural agreement with the finite verb. Instead, some such nouns are treated as singular, and we get singular agreement, as in examples (1) to (3):

(1) Shingles is related to chicken pox.

(2) The statistics indicate that statistics is a popular university subject.

(3) Darts was his favourite pastime.

Example (2) also illustrates that words such as statistics, which are always treated as singular when they refer to university and school subjects, can also be used in the plural when they refer to the practical application of, and the results generated by, the use of the subject or science in question, i.e. we get the statistics indicate, rather than the statistics indicates.

Nouns that look like plurals, even in the singular

Some nouns are such that even though they are normal countable nouns in the sense that they can be used both in the singular and in the plural, both the singular and the plural form of the noun ends in an -s, and thus both look like plurals. Consider the following examples:

(4) The World Series actually only involves the US.

(5) The TV series produced in the 80s were different than the ones today.

(6) This is not our headquarters, but I will never tell you where our real headquarters is.

From a Swedish perspective, the fact that these nouns have both singular and plural uses and forms in Swedish may of course cause problems when writing in English.

Inherently plural nouns

Some nouns are such that they cannot be used in the singular, that is, they are always regarded as denoting something plural, and they always take plural agreement. Important members of this category appear in the following examples:

(7) My new jeans are Italian.

(8) We have to buy Peter new pyjamas, since his old ones are worn out.

(9) In this experiment, headphones are to be used.

(10) The ship's doctor made use of tweezers to remove the foreign object.

(11) The minutes were kept by Sheila.

(12) The goods have been exported to Germany.

(13) All our valuables have been stolen.

(14) The police are investigating the case.

(15) There were hundreds of police present in Stockholm in connection with royal wedding.

(16) Do you know how many people are here?

(17) The cattle were seen grazing in the field.

(18) We do not want vermin in our house, but they are here anyway.

This may not seem so problematic at first sight. Sometimes we use the corresponding nouns in much the same way in Swedish. This is the case with jeans, for instance which requires a plural adjective in Swedish:

(19) Mina nya jeans var inte dyra.

This is often explained by the fact that jeans, trousers ('byxor'), tights, etc. somehow consist of two parts. The Swedish noun pyjamas, however, is different from its English counterpart, in spite of the fact that pyjamas traditionally consist of two parts. In Swedish we get (20), while the correponding English sentence would be (21):

(20) Jag måste köpa honom en ny pyjamas.

(21) I must buy him new pyjamas.

In other words, we cannot use *a new pyjamas, since pyjamas is always plural in English.

Headphones corresponds to Swedish hörlurar, which is also normally plural, even though (22) is fully grammatical:

(22) Min ena hörlur är trasig.

The Swedish word corresponding to the English tweezers is pincett. This noun is not plural in Swedish, even though it can be said to consist of two parts. It seems as if this rule or tendency (i.e. that nouns that denote objects that consist of two parts are treated as plural) is stronger in English than in Swedish. This means, for instance, that (23) does not correspond to (24) or (25), but to (26):

(23) Jag behöver en pincett nu.

(24) *I need a tweezers now.

(25) *I need a tweezer now.

(26) I need (some) tweezers now.

Even though minutes is plural in English, the corresponding Swedish word protokoll is a regular noun that can be either singular or plural:

(27) Protokollet var välskrivet.

(28) Protokollen hade inte blivit justerade.

Goods corresponds to Swedish varor. However, in Swedish it is perfectly normal to use the singular vara (29), while good is not normally used in the singular in English (30):

(29) Jag letar efter en viss vara.

(30) *I'm looking for a certain good.

However, in the field of economics, the singular good is actually used, as in the authentic (31):

(31) Money is a good that acts as a medium of exchange in transactions. Classically it is said that money acts as a unit of account, a store of value, and a medium of exchange. Most authors find that the first two are nonessential properties that follow from the third. In fact, other goods are often better than money at being intertemporal stores of value, since most monies degrade in value over time through inflation or the overthrow of governments (http://economics.about.com/cs/studentresources/f/money.htm, emphasis by AWELU).

Just like valuables is plural in English, värdesaker is plural in Swedish. The singular värdesak is normally not used in Swedish, even though it occurs. So does in fact the singular valuable, even though it is generally regarded as plural only.

Finally in this subsection we have some nouns that do not end in a plural -s, but which are problematic because they are always plural, often in a collective or generic sense. For instance, when we use the police, we normally refer to the whole police force, and when we talk about people, we often talk about people in general.

It is important, however, that we understand that there is a clear difference between being uncountable and being inherently plural with a (typically) collective/generic meaning. Grammatically, the most important difference is that while uncountable nouns always take singular subject-verb agreement, plural nouns always take plural agreement.

Even though a noun is inherently plural and collective in English, this need not be the case in other languages, such as Swedish. For instance while (32) is fully grammatical in Swedish, (33) is not possible to use in English. Instead we have to use (34) or something similar:

(32) Polisen var ung och stilig.

(33) *The police was young and handsome.

(34) The policeman was young and handsome.

Nouns in -ics

Nouns that end in -ics look plural, but are actually most often treated as singular. Thus, when heading a noun phrase which functions as the subject, they trigger singular agreement on the verb.

(35) Statistics is becoming increasingly popular among our students.

(36) Mathematics is an integral part of our culture.

(37) Western economics has tended not to be influenced by theories from other parts of the world.

In the examples above, the nouns in -ics denote academic disciplines. However, some of these nouns may also be used to denote the practical application of the discipline, and are then treated as ordinary plurals, e.g. by taking plural determiners and by triggering plural agreement on the verb.

(38) These statistics show that our production of beef has almost doubled.

(39) The acoustics of the new concert hall are very lively.

Zero plurals

Zero plural nouns are nouns that look the same in the plural as they do in the singular. A well-known example is the noun sheep. Since sheep is a zero plural noun, it looks the same in the two sentences below. However, this does not prevent it from being singular in (40) and plural in (41), as indicated by the different verb forms, is and are:

(40) My sheep is black.

(41) My sheep are black.

Other nouns that belong to this category are aircraft, Chinese, deer, elk, headquarters, horsepower, hovercraft, means, offspring, Portuguese, salmon, series, species, trout, and Vietnamese. When in doubt, please consult a good dictionary.

Foreign plurals

There is a group of nouns whose members are commonly referred to as 'foreign plurals'. What the nouns in this group have in common is that both their singular and their plural forms have been borrowed from other languages, with the result that the plural ending is not the regular English -s, but something else.

Examples of such foreign plural nouns that are important to remember, especially when writing academic texts (since many of these words tend to be academic in nature), are analysis-analyses, basis-bases, criterion-criteria, diagnosis-diagnoses, hypothesis-hypotheses, parenthesis-parentheses, phenomenon-phenomena, stimulus-stimuli, and thesis-theses

What usually happens when a word is borrowed into English (or into some other language) is that is changed in line with the morphology of the language into which it has been borrowed. Consequently, there are some foreign words in English that have both a foreign and an English plural form. Examples include appendix-appendixes/appendices, cactus-cactuses/cacti, focus-focuses/foci, and index-indexes/indices